"You'll be great. You're ready for this, Jen."
I make myself smile and nod again, although I don't want to. I can feel the tension in my jaw increasing even more, and, although I didn't think it could get any more tense, I'm not surprised. I'm utterly terrified, and we both know it. Today anything could happen. Today I could leave forever. Never come back. But we're both pretending everything is okay, because we have to.
" 'Bye," I tell her, biting my lip uncertainly. This is it. This could be our last goodbye. Impulsively, she grabs me and hugs me tightly.
"I love you. I'll see you later."
"See you later," I repeat back to her, then I turn and leave the house before I can talk myself into staying here, safe with her, forever. It's already hard enough for me to leave. I can't hesitate.
Our apartment is third from the top of our tower; I've never bothered to count how many stories up it is. I know it's a lot. But, since we're high, we can see above all of the Towers in the lower Circles, and the view of Kalderon is spectacular. On days like today I have to remind myself that it's not a privilege; it's a warning. A reminder that we are only a stone in the foundation of the mountain, and that we must act accordingly, because if we don't, there will be an avalanche, and the leaders of Kalderon will see to it that it falls on our heads first and foremost.
Taking a deep breath, I square my shoulders and walk over to the railing that lines the apartment buildings. The butterflies in my stomach feel more like thrashing, desperate birds that have been caught in a death trap, every second a thousand wingbeats. But my hands are steady on the cold metal railing, and it scares me. Although my heart is racing, the rest of my body is paralyzed, too numbed by fear even to tremble.
There is a sturdy fireman's pole only a few feet away from the railing, running all the way from the roof to the ground, tens of stories below. Thankful that our apartment doesn't have a window through which my mom can watch me, I swing my leg over the railing and climb onto the narrow ledge beyond, the only thing between me and the ground hundreds of feet below. A few inches of stone, a tight grip on the railing. That's all that's between me and death. So I turn towards the pole and jump.
A moment of soaring weightlessness, then my fingers grasp the pole, my legs wrapping around it to steady myself. There's no room for my former mistakes now. One slip, one wrong move, and I'm dead, my body broken and twisted on the concrete below. I almost laugh from the sheer welcome relief. I won't mess up. I've done this every day since I was tall enough to swing my legs over the railing. And my fears about the day? Waiting for me on the ground.
I relax my grip a little to slide down the pole, and, in a few minutes, my toes touch the ground. I glance up at the apartment building one last time, wondering if I'll ever see it again, then I hoist my backpack up on my shoulder and start to head down the street.
In the intercircles of Kalderon, there are no street level doors, and I walk the bare streets alone. It's so familiar it's almost relaxing. Or would be if I didn't know this might be the last time I see it.
Turning into a side street, I see the large dark hole that indicates the smoothrail entrance. It's not actually a hole; it's just a flight of stairs leading underground in the middle of the street. No one knows why the Council didn't ban it years ago, but I like how it's strangely out of place, and, instead of veering around the dark hole, I head down into it.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the sudden darkness, and I blink several times as I walk down the concrete stairs. As I come out onto the landing, Mr. Steelson, the smoothrail monitor, greets me.
"Last day of being a Nearly, huh, Jen?"
"Yeah." I smile at him. Somehow it's easier than forcing myself to smile at my mom. Mr. Steelson and I are good friends, and have been since I was seven years old, old enough to ride the smoothrail by myself for the first time.
"You ready for today?" he asks as we wait for the next smoothrail to arrive. I casually shift my backpack from one shoulder to the other, trying not to betray my nervousness.
"I guess so. I don't know what to expect, though... I'm a bit scared, I guess."
"Don't stress it." He lowers his voice. "If anyone I know can handle the Ether, it's you, Jen."
"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" I ask, just as quietly. Chills pour down my spine. Nobody is supposed to call the Ether by its name, let alone mention it out loud in public. If my dad knew we were talking about it... but surely Mr. Steelson knows this. He is a monitor, after all.
"I don't know if it's good or bad," he tells me. "I just know that it is. Don't be scared, Jen."
"Okay," I say. More people begin to file into the smoothrail station, and I step away from him. Monitors aren't supposed to show partiality, but we've always ignored this rule. He starts greeting other people like he hasn't just mentioned one of the most forbidden subjects in Kalderon.
"Good morning! Third Circle members in this line please, no pushing; Second Circle members over here; no, you're a Fifth Circle, your line's that way..."
I step up to my line, the Second Circle line, and hold out my payment chip, but Mr. Steelson waves it away.
"No, Jen. Nearlies are free today."
"Really?" I ask.
"You wouldn't know either way, would you?" He gives me a smile and an overexaggerated wink, which I take to mean that he has me covered today, and I board the smoothrail.
A few minutes after me, my best friend, Katherine, gets on the smoothrail. Like me, she's a Second Circle, and a Nearly, and both of our fathers work in the Inner Circle of the Kalderon leaders. Unlike her, however, my father is the Designator, the ultimate leader of Kalderon, and so I have always had to live up to a higher standard.
"I'm not ready for today," she confesses to me as the smoothrail begins to move, sending several people stumbling. Not us, however. A girl whose father is in the Inner Circle cannot afford to stumble and embarrass herself in public just because of something as insignificant as a smoothrail. So we automatically shift our weight to maintain our balance and pretend that nothing has happened. "Jen," she says, "I'm scared. Like, literally terrified."
"Isn't everybody?" I answer. She shakes her head.
"Not this scared. I've heard stories, Jen, about people who don't come back, and... I don't think I can walk into that room."
"Of course you can," I reassure her. "And you'll come out, too. Your dad will make sure of it if nothing else. I'm nervous, too."